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Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope central valley feeders Introduction middle elevations sites for day trips

Where to see Red-headed Barbets when birding Costa Rica: Kiri Lodge

Kiri Lodge. I don’t know about other people, but when I hear the word “lodge” I get these images and visions of a spacious cabin built of massive logs- something like Paul Bunyon’s mansion that could only have been constructed with old growth trees he himself cut down along with the profits he reaped from his mutant-like tree cutting prowess. The ceilings stretch up into the shadows and a permanently lit and crackling fireplace keeps the place as cozy as Grandma Bunyon’s on Thanksgiving. All the chairs are comfortable, a few heads of unfortunate herbivores hang from the walls, the air is consistently scented with apple pie, gingersnaps, or some other smell that one commonly associates with pot-pourri aisles in large, all purpose stores that could be the bane of modern civilization, AND all of the guests sport very comfortable smoking jackets even though they don’t smoke.

I would be surprised if I came across a “lodge” like this when birding Costa Rica (or anywhere on Earth) and am happy to report that Kiri Lodge soundly trounces my mental imagery with a better reality. Situated just outside of Tapanti National Park, Costa Rica, Kiri is essentially a small hotel with an extreme fondness for trout. Honestly, all it takes is one look at the menu in their small restaurant to see that these people love Rainbow Trout (or at least love to prepare them in a dozen different ways) so much that little else appears to be offered. The trout ponds out back are proudly advertised, visitors are encouraged to check out the fish, and it is hoped that you will catch some for your dinner at the restaurant.

The Kiri Lodge people are friendly enough to still serve you with a smile even if you don’t like trout and opt for fried chicken or a beef “casado” (a “casado” is an all purpose standard, tasty meal that usually consists of rice, beans, plantain, salad, vegetable, and beef, chicken, or fish).  For the birder, of far more importance than their penchant for trout is their friendly attitude about birds. They demonstrate this with hummingbird feeders and a fantastic bird-feeding table.

Because there are only two of them, the hummingbird feeders aren’t as buzzing with glittering and pugnacious activity as some other sites but if you watch long enough, Green-crowned Brilliants, Violet Sabrewings, and the local specialty known as the White-bellied Mountain-Gem will make appearances. Far better, however, is the feeding platform.

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The platform as it looked from my seat in the restaurant. If you look close you might make out Blue-gray tanagers (the blue bits), Clay-colored Robins (the clay bits), and a Great Kiskadee (the great yellow thing).

Costa Rica birding

And here is what it looked like through the scope.

While my birding friend Susan and I waited for our annual allotment of fried chicken accompanied by greasy fries, we were entertained by at least 10 species of birds that went nuts over chunks of papaya and huge, ripe plantains. The most common was Silver-throated Tanager.

birding Costa Rica

Commonly seen in middle elevation forests when birding Costa Rica, Silver-throated Tanagers are still best enjoyed up close at feeding tables.

Predominantly yellow, numerous, and smaller than other partakers of the papaya, these were kind of like the goldfinches of the bunch. They stayed out of the way of hungry Clay-colored Thrushes but still shared the table with them.

birding Costa Rica

Costa Rica’s national bird getting ravenous with the papaya. Look how “long-headed” and curve-billed it looks compared to an American Robin or Eurasian Blackbird.

When the Melodious Blackbird made an appearance, though, the Silver-throated Tanagers positively scattered and even the Clay-colored Thrushes left the table. Considering the pointed bill, hefty size, and scary demeanor, who can blame them.

Costa Rica birding

A Melodious Blackbird looking threatening.

birding Costa Rica

Only the rough and tumble Great Kiskadee held its ground against the blackbird.

Luckily for the birds (and us), the Melodious Blackbird was content with spending only as much time on the table as it took to wolf down a few choice chunks of papaya. Otherwise we may not have seen smaller and more brightly colored Baltimore Orioles,

birding Costa Rica

birding Costa Rica

a handsome Black-cowled Oriole,

birding Costa Rica

nor oohed and aahed over the sky blue of Blue-gray Tanagers.

birding Costa Rica

If that blackbird hadn’t left, we might have also missed the clownish king of the bird feeding show; the Red-headed Barbet. As befits such a spectacular bird species, it only showed up after most of the other birds had made an appearance and even then hopped down to the side of the platform and scowled as if in disdain at having to share the table with such commoner things.

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“Egads! Why do I lower myself to share space with these Silver-throated Tanagers and dingy Clay-colored Robins!”

birding Costa Rica

“I mean just look at that thrush! Must they always be so maniacal when presented with an abundance of fruit?”

birding Costa Rica

“Their class-less behavior makes me want to look away in disgust!”

birding Costa Rica

“Keep your distance dirt colored heathen or I shall give thee a wallop with my stout bill”!

We also saw Red-headed Barbets in Tapanti that same morning but it’s always nice to casually get fantastic looks at such a funky looking bird while sitting down to lunch at such a birder friendly restaurant as that of Kiri Lodge.

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Birding Costa Rica Introduction lowlands mangroves Pacific slope

Carara is Hot and Dry in April but the birding is still good

I guided some folks for a couple of days at Carara 2 weeks ago. As always, the birding was good; a walk in the forest near the HQ in the morning and a mangrove boat ride in the afternoon yielded 128 species. It sure was hot though; hot and dry! This is the end of the dry season in Costa Rica; the end of “summer’ for the locals. Although it hasn’t rained yet, it’s getting cloudier by the day and when those clouds burst, it’s gonna to be a daily rainfest. Shortly after the rains begin anew, Carara will green up again (and get flooded in parts). On April 10th, though, the leaves crackled under foot and the sun beat down mercilessly. At least it was cooler inside the forest.

I started the day at the bridge over the Tarcol River. Even at dawn, a few people were moving single file down the narrow sidewalk to get looks at the crocodiles. Later in the day, there is a constant crowd of people walking out to see those aquatic monsters. With the guardrails missing in places, it’s amazing that some unlucky drunk fellow hasn’t fallen over to be horrifically devoured. The crocs are certainly large enough to do it!

Scanning for birds, I saw several heron species, Roseate Spoonbill, Wood Stork, Black-necked Stilt and a few groups of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks. This is par for the course at the bridge. That particular dawn, I also saw 100s of Baltimore Orioles flying from their roosts towards the forests of Carara, along with many Barn Swallows and common open country stuff like Melodious Blackbird, Kiskadees, White-winged Doves, etc.

Melodious Blackbird has firmly established itself in Costa Rica.

Since taxis and buses were absent on Good Friday, I walked the 3 or 4 kilometers to the entrance. It was a nice morning walk actually with lots of bird activity along the way including Keel-billed Toucan and Montezuma Oropendola; uncommon species for Carara.

The parking lot at HQ is a great place to see common species such as Rose-throated Becard. This is a female; in my opinion better looking than the male in Costa Rica. Although in Mexico, the bird truly has a rose-colored throat, here in Costa Rica, the male is all dark. In the same tree, I had Violaceous Trogon, Lesser Greenlet, Yellow-throated and Philadelphia Vireos, Streak-headed Woodcreeper and Yellow-throated Euphonia while a Northern Waterthrush was yearning for water at the edge of the parking lot.

Philadelphia Vireo- one of the most common wintering birds around Carara.

We entered the Universal Trail (named as such because it is handicap accessible) and slowly made our way through the drier secondary growth. We saw lots more Becards, Common Tody, Streaked and Piratic Flycatchers, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Black-headed Trogon and other common species. We also had great studies of Greenish Elaenia and Yellow-Olive Flycatchers- both common birds of Carara.

Just as we reached the primary forest, we had good looks at a pair of Slaty-tailed Trogons as a Jacamar called in the distance. Our walk through the primary forest was quite productive, especially for flycatchers. Overall it was a great day for flycatchers with 25 species by dusk! In various mixed flocks typical for Carara, we had Cocoa and Wedge-billed Woodcreepers, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, Plain Xenops, Black-hooded Antshrike, Dot-winged Antwren, Russet Antshrike (just one shy bird), Ruddy-tailed, Sulphur-rumped, Ochre-bellied, Yellow-bellied and Dusky-capped Flycatchers, Lesser and Tawny-crowned Greenlets, Long-billed Gnatwren, Chestnut-sided Warbler, 1 Tropical Parula, gorgeous Bay-headed Tanagers and White-shouldered and Summer Tanagers.

An amazing sight; a Lesser Greenlet staying still!!

Outside of mixed flocks we did alright too with Purple-crowned Fairy, Steely-vented Hummingbird, excellent looks at feeding Brown-hooded Parrots, Baird’s Trogon (had to work for that one), a few White-whiskered Puffbirds, Chestnut-backed Antbird, both Spadebill species, Royal Flycatcher building a nest, lots of Northern Bentbills, and excellent looks at Spot-crowned Euphonia.

Northern Bentbill

male Spot-crowned Euphonia

Manakins seemed to be absent and I’m not sure where the Wrens, Black-faced Antthrush and Antpitta were hiding but it was a good four hours of birding nonetheless. We lunched at the closest, nicest place; Villa Lapas.

Villa Lapas is pricey but has good accommodations, service and restaurant. The grounds are also pretty birdy and they have a bridge/canopy walkway.

During lunch, a Bare-throated Tiger Heron worked the stream,

and a pair of Green Kingfishers entertained.

After lunch and a short rest, we were off to the mangrove birding tour. As in some other tourist frequented sites, around Carara, the taxis were charging a mint to get around; $10 for the short drive between Villa Lapas and the Carara HQ and $50 round trip to the mangrove birding tour. The regular price for a taxi in Costa Rica for the same distances should be at the most $4 and $24 respectively. Yet another reason to rent a car.

Anyways, at the boat dock we started seeing new birds straightaway; Amazon Kingfisher perched on the dock, our first of many Common Black Hawks, Anhinga and various herons. As the boat departed, a Zone-tailed Hawk swiftly soared across the river mouth and Black-necked Stilts became visible. During the boat trip, the pair of Mangrove Swallows that nest in a box in the boat accompanied us. Despite the high tide (not ideal for birding), we identified 77 species.

After checking the river mouth, we went up a channel through tall mangroves. As with any mangrove boat trip I have done, the mangroves are tall and it’s a cool habitat but the birds are pretty scarce. We saw a few herons and got nice looks at Ringed Kingfisher then picked up Common Ground Dove (which was interesting because there wasn’t any dry ground) and Rufous-browed Peppershrike. The Peppershrike was a nice surprise. This widespread neotropical species is rather uncommon in Costa Rica and mostly found in underbirded areas such as the Central Valley and mangroves. After the Peppershrike excitement, we investigated a smaller mangrove channel and stopped to play tape of various species. Although we didn’t get any responses from the Wood-rail or Woodcreepers, we got nice looks at Panama Flycatcher and Common Black Hawks and one of our group almost certainly saw Mangrove Hummingbird.

Back out in the main channel, we taped in one of the common mangrove specialties; Mangrove Vireo then headed upriver. With the sun to our backs, we had beautiful looks at any birds that flew in front of us. One of the best was a quick flyby of Crane Hawk, its redddish legs standing out in the sun. We also had many Red-billed Pigeons and started to get parrot flybys as the afternoon progressed. We had a few macaws although Red-lored and Mealy Parrots were the most frequent parrot species. A green field was filled with Barn, Southern Rough-winged and a few Cliff Swallows while Costa-rican Swifts fed low over the water. One of our best birds was Double-striped Thick-knee; a pair lounging in a sparsely vegetated rocky area with half buried tires and other pieces of trash. This noctural shorebird of dry fields occurs in the extensive pastures visible from the bridge but is tough to see away from the boat tour.

Somewhere out there is a Double-striped Thick-knee, a bird that by name and appearance belongs in a Roald Dahl story.

Whimbrels were common. We also saw loads of Spotted Sandpipers, several Willets and Ruddy Turnstones.

We ended the tour with a beautiful sunset, Lesser Nighthawks feeding near the river mouth and Ferruginous Pygmy Owls calling near the dock for yet another great day of birding around Carara National Park.

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Birding Costa Rica Introduction middle elevations

Birding Arenal Observatory Lodge

This past weekend I co-guided the Bird Club of Costa Rica (BCCR) once again; this time at a lodge that sits at the foot of the most active volcano in Costa Rica- Volcan Arenal. Smoking and grumbling in the Caribbean slope foothills, Arenal is about 2 hours from Monteverde, nearly four hours drive from San Jose. On Saturday morning I did the drive with fellow BCCR members Johan and Ineke. It was one of those beautiful Saturday mornings when the beauty of the green mountains framed by blue skies makes you wish more than ever that you could fly just so you could get up there as quick as possible. Flying would leave out the narrow curvy roads too but since we never evolved wings, up we went twisting and turning through coffee plantations in a small burnt-orange Chevrolet. Traffic was light and the air scented by cloud forest remnants- a pleasant drive up and over the ridge of the Cordillera Central to descend once again past the La Paz waterfall and Virgen del Socorro.

This is a truly beautiful route and one that should be birded more (one of these days, I’m going to bird the forest remnants and tangled bamboo near Varablanca and post about it). We passed fruit stalls with golden pineapples and football-sized papayas, gardens glowing with purple bougainvilla and shining red Heliconias. When we turned left at San Miguel, the Caribbean lowland plain streched out below; all the way to forested hills on the Nicaraguan border. We drove through far too many cow pastures; lands at one time shaded by immense rain forest trees with 400 species of birds. Now, the pasture grasses and thick spiny growth support a handfull of species; Anis, Seedeaters and Red-winged Blackbirds in place of Antbirds, Forest Falcons and Umbrellabirds. On the way to Ciudad Quesada, I was gladdened to see some intact forest in hilly areas-probably a watershed. Hopefully I will continue to see it, maybe even bird it some day.

In Ciudad Quesada we stopped for a coffee at a small bakery called Pan de Leon. The true pizza aficionado I am, I tried their pizza- like most pizza here, it was strange but ok and nothing close to New York pizza (yes, I miss it!). We made it to La Fortuna not long after, softly cruising along smooth roads. This incredible lack of potholes was a pleasant and welcome surprise; potholes and broken pavement are standard aspects of central valley roads- some are so lunar that locals stick tires or trees in the deeper “calle” chasms. Eager to get to our destination, we buzzed through touristy La Fortuna. This place is over done with hotels and “cabinas”, most of which also over charge. We pondered over how strong the recession will hit local businesses, how many will have to close their doors and put up a closed indefinitely sign instead of one that reads no vacancy.

Not long after the Tabacon hot springs we saw the turn off for our lodge and traded the asphalt of the highway for the rocky, dusty road that led straight towards the volcano. Luckily we had good, dry weather because during heavy rains that road is probably a slick, muddy mess. It first passed through old orchards, then just after the entrance to the national park was flanked by old second growth. We stopped  a few times and had several wintering warblers (Blue-winged being the best) along with different Wrens, Lesser Greenlet, Dusky Antbird, Great Antshrike and others- not bad for sunny midday weather. This road is probably very good in the early morning and late afternoon as the old second growth is connected to large areas of intact forest. Its probably good for night-birding too.

We stopped at a bridge with volcano in view and got nice looks at several species here such as Olive-crowned Yellowthroat and Thick billed Seed Finch (female below).

We were also entertained by Southern Rough-wing Swallows.

Further on we saw the “famous” Tucanes trail that we had never heard of. Apparently its good for seeing “the red hot lava”.

Opting for birds intead of glowing lava, we passed through the lodge checkpoint and headed up the hill to our destination.

The Arenal Observatory Lodge is not only aptly named with its perfect views of the volcano, but is also an excellent spot for birding.  This was the view from our window. Although the top of the volcano is typically shrouded in clouds, some glowing red hot areas are usually visible at night and rocks are frequently heard tumbling down the mountainside.  We saw lots of good birds from the balcony; Robert Dean, the illustrator for the latest Costa Rica field guide, saw Black Hawk Eagle from here before we arrived.

One of the best birds was Black-crested Coquette. This is the easiest site to see this species possibly anywhere- several females and occasional males were always in view feeding in the Verbena or Porterweed.

We also had nice looks at Violet-headed Hummingbird and this infrequent hummingbird species; a female Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer.

One of the friendliest birds was this Broad-winged Hawk-Costa Rica’s most common winter raptor.

We got good looks at other common species such as Melodious Blackbird.

and uncommon species such as Scarlet-thighed Dacnis- here a female.

The deck by the restaurant was ok but could have been better if they had put out more fruit for the birds. Nevertheless, it still attracted a few species and had awesome views of the volcano.

Speaking of restaurants, I can’t say I recommend that of the Arenal Observatory Lodge. The buffet breakfast was good but the rest was over-priced, boring dishes. Really, you are better off dining somewhere near Fortuna. That way, you can also bird the entrance road in the afternoon and look for night birds on the way back.

Although much of the vegetation at the lodge is non-native Eucalyptus and Caribbean pine, their trails mostly access native vegetation. The concrete trail behind our balconies looked promising; Robert has seen Thicket Antpitta here. The best trail might be the waterfall trail though. This trail accesses some beautiful middle elevation forest and has a bridge offering some canopy birding. After crossing the bridge, one reaches an open area with views of forested hills; the perfect situation to scan for Lovely Cotinga in the morning (which we didn’t see but does occur). Although we had a fairly quiet time along this trail, its probably worth a whole day as it likely holds middle elevation rarities such as Sharpbill, Black-headed Anthrush and much more. Some of the notable species we had were Crested Guan, Song Wren, Spotted Antbird and Olive-striped Flycatcher. At the entrance to the trail we had a brief flyby of a Yellow-eared Toucanet that was hanging out with a large group of Aracaris which was followed up by an even briefer flyby of what was almost certainly two Red-Shouldered Parrotlets!!

One of the coolest sightings was not a bird. See if you can find the Tigrillo or Oncilla that had been hanging around the waterfall trail. Raised by people and released here, it is far from afraid. In fact, you have to be careful it doesn’t jump on you! It was amazing to see one of these running around; very few people have seen this secretive species in the wild. Editor’s note- turns out that this cat was a Margay.

I would certainly recommend staying at the Arenal Observatory Lodge whether you bird or not. For birders, the cabins sans volcano view are just as good, if not better (at least for birding) because they are closer to good habitat with a beautiful overlook that should be good for raptors and scanning the canopy for Cotingas, etc. Although the restaurant offerings need serious help, the trails are also good birding as is the entrance road (check the rivers for Sunbittern and Fasciated Tiger Heron); birding both areas should turn up a good variety of lowland and middle elevation species. This is a great place to bring non-birding family and friends too but make reservations at this justly popular spot. If you aren’t staying here, you can still bird the entrance road for free and can pay $4 to bird the trails at the lodge, which in my opinion is very much worth it.